Becker: Malice (1993)
Of all the bizarre genre fusions that emerged in the early 90s, Harold Becker’s Malice is perhaps the most contorted, convoluted and improbable in its sheer proliferation of plot points. While the erotic thriller was a distinct genre, it also produced a broader appetite for perverse and preposterous stories, tastefully done – films that specialised in tasteful perversion, or perverted tastefulness, until signalling taste itself turned into a perverse exercise. These films were typically mid-budget productions of a kind that no longer exist, squarely directing their content at adults, rather than trying to bridge adult and young adult demographics, as has occurred with so many releases in the wake of the Marvel Renaissance. They also tended to have some element of perverse eroticism, and to draw on the classic erotic thriller, even though they didn’t always fit squarely or neatly into this genre category.
Malice is one of the most comprehensive of these films, using the erotic thriller to generate a gesamtkunstwerk, or totalising vision, of “genre” itself as it stood at the start of the Hollywood 90s. Through a dizzying array of plot twists and fresh revelations, Becker fuses the erotic thriller with a slasher film, a legal drama, a campus thriller, and a medical narrative, weaving all these threads together with a remarkable dexterity. The result is somehow manic and placid at the same time – perverse and tasteful – thanks in part to Gordon Willis’ exceptional cinematography, which overlaps every scene with a serene sheen that almost feels like a parodic riff on his more contemplative lightscapes of the New Hollywood period.
Of course, none of that actually describes what Malice is actually about – and it’s a hard film to encapsulate in a summative way. The meaning and experience of the film derives in large part from the way it unfolds, so it’s perhaps best to start with the three characters as they’re presented to us in the opening act. First, we have Andy Safian, played by Bill Pullman, an academic and Associate Dean working in a small Massachusetts college town. Then we have Tracy, his wife, played by Nicole Kidman, who we gradually learn was also his former student, and now works as a children’s nurse. Finally, we have Dr. Jed Hill, a surgeon, played by Alex Baldwin who has recently joined a local hospital, where he seems to be situated in the emergence unit. Andy meets Jed by chance, realises they went to school together, and one thing leads to another, until he offers to lease out the third floor of his Victorian home to Jed.
This is all overlaid with a secondary narrative – a serial killer narrative. During the opening credits we follow a young woman as she jogs home from the university. The images are glassy and the score is serene, so it’s quite a shock when she gets inside to find a murderer waiting for her. This murderer, who appears to be based on the Boston Strangler, recurs at key points during the first act, and always in an atonal or oblique remove from the main part of the story. There are certainly clear intersections between these two parts of the film, since Andy is the Associate Dean, and the killer is targeting students (including a young woman played by Gwyneth Paltrow, in one of her earliest appearances). But for the most part Becker keeps a reserved distance between the triangle of main characters and the crimes of this serial killer.
Before Jed even arrives in their lives, Andy and Tracy’s relationship seems slightly awry – and not just because she used to be his student. Erotic thrillers tended to present married couples as breeding suspicion and paranoia as a matter of course, so it’s hard not to be sceptical of Andy and Tracy simply because they appear to be a normal, functional couple. Yet Becker also excarbates this suspicion in ways that are more specific to the film. Both Andy and Tracy are low talkers, and they tend to be shot from a distance, or speak from different rooms, all of which evokes a circumambient surveillance whose source is quite difficult to pin down. They’re also quite difficult to read as characters, which disrupts normal patterns of sympathy, or prevents us settling into normal patterns of sympathy. Gradually, you sense an emergent and inchoate threat, although, like the serial killings, it’s impossible to know when it will strike.
As a result, we first feel this uncertainty spatially, rather than through any one action or event. Like so many erotic thrillers, Malice is peculiarly preoccupied with property, and the precarity of yuppies as they start to make inroads into older neighbourhoods. Andy and Tracy are renovating a three-storey Victorian house, but the project is proving a little costly, which is why they’re forced to rent out the top floor. As in Pacific Heights, this produces a new kind of home invasion drama, driven by yuppies who are compelled to rent out excess space, even as taking on renters helps to invest in a more secure hold over domestic space in the future.
This quickly produces a profound status anxiety for Andy, since Jed quickly becomes a perverse doppelanger of his landlord. While the two men went to high school together, we quickly learn that they didn’t really have much in common. Whereas Andy was a nerd, Jed was a jock, and yet he was an intelligent jock, just as he’s become a macho surgeon, meaning Jed can’t even fall back upon his intelligence to bolster up his sense of self. Jed continually reminds Andy of his own masculine shortcomings, continually bringing women to ecstatic organism in his bedroom as Andy and Tracy attempt to get to sleep in their bedroom below.
It makes sense that Jed lives on the top floor, since he later acknowledges that he has a God Complex, and that he’s not ashamed to admit it. As soon as he moves into Andy’s house, he takes on a new omniscience, adopting an particularly preternatural awareness of Tracy’s body. He first meets Tracy in an elevator, entering just as she’s talking about him, and his sexual exploits seem peculiarly attuned to Tracy’s reactions as well. You sense that the audible orgasms are for her benefit, and sure enough he stops having sex, and turns off the music, as soon as she complains to Andy that she can’t sleep, even though he can’t hear her upstairs.
Jed’s sensitivity to Tracy’s body escalates until it produces the first major plot point in the film. We learn, early on, that Tracy has been having regular ovary pain. During an especially acute episode, she collapses on the stairs, and almost faints with the pain. At this very moment, Jed appears out of the darkness, whisks Tracy to hospital, and removes her damaged ovary. He’s unable to contact Andy, who has been taken aside at this very moment, by Detective Dana Harris, played by Bebe Neuwirth, who questions him as a possible suspect in the serial killings, after he happens to discover the latest victim, another one of his students.
In Andy’s absence, Jed makes the executive decision to remove one of Tracy’s ovaries, along with the unborn foetus within it. When Andy finally arrives at the hospital, Jed tells him the bad news, reveals that Tracy was pregnant (with a foetus that has not been aborted), and asks him what he should do about the other ovary. Jed says that it looks necrotic, and that it would be dangerous to leave in Tracy’s body, even though he hasn’t consulted a histologist, and even though everyone else on his surgery team strongly advises him to seek a second opinion. Andy never sees this conversation, and gives Jed permission to whatever he thinks necessary, so he’s traumatised when it turns out this second ovary was only necrotic on the surface – it was, for the most part, a fully healthy ovary, and could have been easily salvaged.
At this point, and with this revelation, Jed’s home invasion gives way to bodily invasion. He now has an intimacy with Tracy’s body that is both sexual and transcends sex – he has handled, inspected and ultimately removed her ovaries. Meanwhile, Andy has to learn how to live with the man who removes his wife’s ovaries. This is even harder in that it’s genuinely indiscernible whether Jed’s split-second decision was malicious, ill-judged or the right call. This uncertainty morphs the film into a medical malpractice drama as the second act begins. Faced with this traumatic emasculation, Andy is curiously sidelined, as Tracy leaves him, and files a suit against Jed: “He took my insides out – and you gave him permission.” Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay for Malice, and we start to see his distinctive style in a deposition that plays as a kind of medical sequel to the iconic courtroom scene in A Few Good Men. After being accused of having a God Complex, Jed brashly asserts that “I am God,” and then criticises the prosecution as hypocrites – relying on surgeons, but questioning their methods.
As this malpractice suits rages on, Andy recedes more and more. He doesn’t even attend the deposition, watching quietly from across the road as Tracy and Jed leave the building, before Becker cuts to him huddled over his desk in his dark office. Yet this same cut ushers in the first stage in Andy’s remasculation and rehabilitation as well. Hearing an odd noise in the basement, he decides to explore, discovers evidence that his janitor is the serial killer, and only just survives being killed by the janitor himself. By this stage, Jed has invaded Andy’s life so thoroughly that he can only restore his sense of self by preventing other invasions in the future – namely, those of the serial killer, who suddenly becomes clearer as a narrative device.
However, preventing future invasions isn’t enough to fully offset the invasion of Andy’s house and wife. No sooner has he delivered up the serial killer – announcing proudly “if you want something done right, call a teacher!” – than he receives his biggest blow yet. While he’s still at the police station, he receives a call from Jed, asking him to meet him at the hotel where’s now living. When Andy arrives, Jed tells him that his semen has tested sterile, meaning that the foetus wasn’t even his. The man who removed his wife’s ovaries (one of them incorrectly) and aborted his child now tells Andy that he is clinically serial – the nadir of his emasculation.
This leads us into the third part of the film – when it gets truly bonkers. Andy gradually figures out that Tracy’s lawsuit was part of a bigger insurance fraud, and that she has treated their whole marriage as a grift. In erotic thrillers, plot twists were a way of capturing a new horizon for masculine humiliation, and a new precarity for white husbands in particular, in the face of a more liberalised 90s. In Malice, Becker accelerates this process to the point of parody, presenting us with so many twists, and so much escalation, that the film nearly – but never quite – falls back in upon itself and becomes a comedy. With each fresh twist, Andy feels Jed’s hands on his wife’s ovaries, twisting and bruising them enough to justify removing them for the insurance scheme, since it seems this is what happened at the start of her surgery. Like Tracy’s ovaries, the movie itself is torsed (to use a medical term that keeps cropping up), twisted, turned and bruised until it’s almost necrotic, almost toxic, and almost destroys itself.
What’s so remarkable about Malice, though, is that it manages to tread this tightrope of absurdity without losing a step, escalating until it becomes an almost inadvertent critique of the erotic thriller – especially the masochistic masculine self-pity of the erotic thriller, which Becker hyperbolises by inflecting it through every conceivable genre cue. Jed reminds Andy that “bad things happen all the time to good people,” while Detective Harris go so far as to compare his sufferings to Job’s. Part of the voyeuristic thrill of the film is seeing these masculine indignities pile up – the alpha male moving into Andy’s house, only to remove his wife’s ovaries, abort his baby and inform him he’s sterile. Yet Andy is only jettisoned from his gender because Tracy refuses to conform to hers, meaning his delirious emasculation is mirrored in the increasingly absurd ways she sheds her femininity, from an abortion scam he gradually uncovers (where she first met Jed) to having her ovaries removed for the insurance.
In other words, Tracy’s main confidence trick is pretending to be a women – or pretending to be what a woman is supposed to be. Her con only works, we slowly realise, because of just how conservative Andy’s expectations of her were all along, both as a wife and as a woman. When we first meet Andy and Tracy, they appear to be a modern, educated, liberal couple. Yet the fact that Tracy was Andy’s student suggests a more unequal power dynamic – or that Andy needs a more unequal power dynamic. Sure enough, as soon as Tracy is unable to have children, the film spirals into a series of escalating emasculating indignities, revealing that he Andy saw her first and foremost as a childbearer. At times, the entire third act feels like a projection of Tracy’s paranoid mind, not unlike Tom Cruise’s visit to the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut – a desperate attempt to craft a narrative that can contend with autonomous female desire while keeping male desire centred, if only by repositioning it as paranoid victimhood.
In that sense, Tracy understands Andy better than Andy understands himself, completely subordinating her identity to the desire to have children in the early stages of their relationship. Later on in the film, Andy recalls the “second and a half” that elapsed between meeting Jed at the hospital, and having to make the call about Tracy’s second ovary, as the last happy moment in this life. Yet this second and a half has a darker valency too, since Andy wavered, during this brief period of time, about whether to keep the second ovary in place, despite the risk of toxic shock. In other words, Andy hesitated about whether he valued Tracy’s life more than her ovary – and Tracy has given him license to do this by insidiously indulging his fantasy of her as a walking pair of ovaries, though he’d be shocked to admit it.
The third act of Malice thus plays as a paranoid masculine fantasia on female autonomy, turning Tracy into a kind of end point of the femme fatale as a neo-noir trope. As James Naremore argues in More Than Night, the femme fatale partly emerged in response to male anxieties about the rise of the female professional workforce during WWII. Professional autonomy led to sexual autonomy, a progression that neo-noirs were able to capture with considerably more license and explicit imagery than their mid-century forebears. Malice may be the most ingenious and perverse take on this trope, presenting us with a woman whose professional autonomy lies precisely in weaponising her body against male heteronormativity – first by getting an abortion, in her last scam, and then by removing her ovaries altogether.
The third act of the film largely focuses on Andy as he takes on an investigative role, and immerses himself in the figurative possibilities of this culminative femme fatale. During these scenes, Becker builds a genuine and contagious sense of paranoia, a vertiginous precarity regarding who else might be pulled into Andy’s kaleidoscopic emasculation. There’s a scattered sense of surveillance, as the plot twists so far it’s hard to tell who can be trusted, or if anyone can be trusted, as the tone of the film grows more and more precipitous too. Beyond a certain point, the film is Tracy’s scam, a finely-wrought, high-stakes game that hangs in the balance – a perfect vehicle for Pullman, who excelled at a certain kind of baroque passivity.
As the third act reaches its stride, the diverse genre cues fuse into a Fincheresque space – a hyperreal zone that doesn’t even pretend to be realistic anymore, instead suspending us in the freefall figurative possibilites of masochistic masculine angst as a form of indefinite play: “Welcome to the game.” The same cyber-rain that we will soon see in Se7en starts to clog the mise-en-scene, corroding any conventional sense of space as Andy trails Tracy and Jed to a computer-generated house poised as precipitously as the plot itself on the edge of a Gothic cliff. By this stage, he’s simply following a metonymic chain of images, a hallucinatory emasculation, rather than regular narrative logic, and the same goes for Tracy and Jed, who sink deeper into hyperreality too, as if succumbing to a proliferation of tropes they can’t fully control or contain. In their last scene together, we sink into a pastiche of classic noir, as the palette dims, the lighting grows more expressionistic, the body language falls into 40 poses and postures, and the dialogue stylises: “Welcome to the land of “You don’t have a choice.”
Yet something in the film rebels against this encroaching hyperreality, or is galvanised further by it, prompting Becker, and Sorkin, into one final plot twist. After profiting off an abortion, and then removing her ovaries, Tracy realises she needs to kill a child witness – a young boy who lives across the street from Andy’s house. This boy often peers in their windows at night, so Andy is able to convince Tracy that he has witnessed her taking medicine to provoke her ovary issues. Jed went along with the abortion and oophorectomy, but killing a child is a step too far, so he peels away from Tracy at this point, like Macbeth gradually discarding Lady Macbeth, who seems like the inspiration for Tracy by this late stage in the film. Like Lady Macbeth, Tracy “unsexes” herself, takes on masculine “traits,” and indulges in imagery of exreme body modification to show up a liberal yuppie demographic who’d congratulate themselves on having surpassed the messy gender politics that you see in Shakespeare’s play.
In one crazy final scene, Tracy takes on the role of the suburban slasher and breaks into her neighbours’ house, making her way upstairs to kill the child witness. Realising that he can’t quite thwart her in real space and time anymore, Andy responds by crafting a hyperreal noir spectacle of his own, replacing the child with an old-fashioned dummy, and enlisting Detective Harris to dress up as a 40s nurse, and even adopt an accent to make it all plausible. Ever since Halloween, the slasher has been an unrivalled figure of emasculated angst, so in order to thwart Tracy, Andy has to take control of this invasion trope much as he apprehended the serial killer earlier in the film. Manipulating a peeping tom to his own advantage gets him part of the way, but he also cements his control over the slasher mise-en-scene by supplementing the noir pastiche with a brilliant additional touch – placing the child-dummy at a keyboard that continually intones a creepy synth riff based on the theme from Halloween.
It all works – Andy and Detective Harris apprehend Tracy, who is taken away to prison. Yet in one final (final) twist, the child finally arrives home, and is led into the house by his parents while tapping a white cane on the ground. Earlier in the film, Andy stopped a serial killer, only to discover he was sterile. Now he has stopped a peeping tom, only to discover he was blind. This produces a momentary bathos, as Becker finally, fleetingly, tantalisingly permits his narrative convolutions to collapse in on themselves for a glimpse of fully-fledged comedy. But the credits roll too quickly for the register to stabilise, leaving Andy’s remasculation project unfinished, in a strange place between pathos and bathos, torsed out of all regular tonality, like a question the film has raised with increasing urgency, but without being able to answer.
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